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Oral histories speak about environmental change

This photograph was taken sometime between 1910 to 1940 by early non-Seminole explorers in the Everglades. What they may have seen as an adventure, Seminole and Miccosukee residents knew as home. (Courtesy Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki)

For the last few months a dedicated team of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum staff has been researching the oral history collection in order to provide insight to our current environmental projects. The museum holds over 200 interviews and they date from 1960 to 2019. Everyone who gives an interview is able to identify what kind of access they want the interview to have. This process ensures that privacy is respected, and is something the museum takes very seriously to protect and/or restrict access. Therefore, we have been working with the unrestricted oral histories to listen to what they can tell us about how the environmental changes of the 20th century have affected the Seminole and Miccosukee people. One of those interviews stands out.

In 1998, Jack Henry Motlow recorded an interview about his life. He was born in 1923 near Miami, and he moved to the Tamiami Trail in his early life. When he was young, he must have witnessed a lot of environmental change, as the Everglades were being drained, roads were being constructed, and more people were settling in South Florida. Mr. Motlow remembered farms and canoes in the Everglades near Miami. But he mentions having to move from the Everglades to a roadside Tamiami village because white men took over the land to farm and Seminoles couldn’t use it anymore. He said they used fertilizer and it ran off the fields into the water supply, so the water wasn’t good to drink anymore. He surmised that this was probably still true in 1998. An emotional quote speaks to concerns we are well aware of today:

“Before that the white people were going to built canal and our older people didn’t want them to be built but they did anyway. The older people say it will dry up the Everglades and it wasn’t good. That what happen. Today we have to buy bottle water to drink because of the fertilizer draining into the water. Today I think there law now to protection the Everglades from drying up. Back then you could see way off and nice breeze for the sail to travel with. Because of the drainage there are a lot of growth today.”

Photos from the museum’s collection can illustrate just what Mr. Motlow was talking about. Before Everglades drainage, the water was clean and plentiful. The land was not crowded with people. Animals and plants were healthy. This black and white photograph (at left) from the very early 20th century captured the environment like this. But the color aerial photograph of agricultural and water management areas (above) is the complete opposite of nature’s harmony. It seems impossible to make this mosaic of industry back into something that would give Seminole people an ideal landscape.

Do you have thoughts on environmental change that you’d like to share? How has it affected you and your family? What you would like to see happen in your surrounding landscape. There’s an opportunity for you to add your voice to the oral history collection so that current and future generations understand what life is like today, and what you remember about the past.

If you’d like to be interviewed for the museum’s oral history collection, please contact Jason Herbert, THPO ethnographer at or Lois Billie, EOO administrative assistant, at 863-697-2835 to arrange a time to talk.

Tara Backhouse is Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s collections manager.

A late 20th century photograph of mixed agricultural operations features citrus, sugarcane, and other crops. Expert water management is needed to maintain this landscape. (Courtesy Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki)